Missing spoons

Author’s note: This is an excerpt from a work in progress. It did not happen. Except for the part about a missing prostitute, a corrupt police department, and an inexplicable disparity between my forks and spoons (forks: 24, spoons: 3). Did I just not notice losing the spoons? What the fuck?


What happened?

I sit on the edge of the bed, staring at my hands. There used to be a thick callous, the size of a dime, at the base of my right index finger. Now it’s gone.

All the scrapes and cuts, the grease under my fingernails, burns on my wrists and forearms — all gone.

On the dresser, a clean pair of pants, a polo shirt (a fucking polo shirt?) and socks, solid black without a single pale-orange bleach spot.

My knife-bag is gone from the door. Instead, there’s a laptop case. There’s a stack of files – city contracts and FOIA requests – and three slim notebooks full of names and places, quotes with dates and initials.

One blessed note of familiarity: I’m hung over. So there’s that.

Also, a bizarre quirk: in the silverware drawer, a good half of the spoons are missing and there are twice as many forks as any two-person household could conceivably use.

Maybe that’s why I’ve put on twenty pounds — too many goddamn forks.

*

I’m sitting in a bottle shop downtown and there’s a young guy sitting across from me. He’s wearing a boxy suit, the kind people buy when they’re only going to wear it three times a year: weddings, funerals, and court. Today it’s court.

It’s ten-thirty in the morning, most restaurants aren’t open yet and the dives won’t open until the evening. But the bottle-shop opens early, so cops come here for a morning nightcap before they head home, pull the shades against the sun, and try to sleep. Third-shift beat cops, vice and narcotics detectives, overnight dispatch.

He holds up his pint glass, a dark ESB.

“I’m so tired of IPAs. It’s like everyone is going eight or nine fucking percent,” he says. “I drink one and I’m half drunk and I feel bloated.”

He takes a swig and sets his glass town.

“Plus I read an article, they give you man tits.”

I sigh.

“I think I read the same thing.”

This is what we talk about — craft beer culture, the threat of man tits, the weather – while we drink a beer together, and then another. He’s got to be in court in an hour. I’m technically off today, but I’m working.

Working, but not getting anywhere.

The young man wants to tell me something. It has to do with a human trafficking case that went sideways a few years ago. A prostitute went missing, a cop got shot, a police van got vandalized – lit on fire one spring morning. A lot of people got reassigned, a couple of detectives had to ride out their last years behind desks. But that was the extent of it. TV did their sixty seconds, but it didn’t have legs. It never went viral so, really, it never happened.

“No one knows how bad it was,” he says, looking at his phone, not at me.

It catches me off guard.

“How bad was it?” I ask after a moment.

“Bad,” he says. “That’s why they torched the van. Too messy to clean up.”

“They?”

He just stares into his beer. The paper I work for, it doesn’t use anonymous sources. We both know he’s not going to go on the record. We both know what that would mean for him. Worse than getting stuck with desk duty.

“I can never sleep when I go home,” he says, “unless I’ve had a few. If I sleep too long, I wake up confused, like I can’t remember what day it is. Like I’m someone else. Like I woke up in some other poor shit’s life.”

He says it like it’s a joke, but he does’t laugh.

“Go to the Times,” I tell him.

“They won’t touch it,” he says. “They don’t want to dig up old shit.”

“Why not?”

He looks at me, just shy of baleful.

So that’s it. We finish our beers. He goes to court in his boxy suit. I wash my face in the bottle shop bathroom and take a walk before driving back to the office, empty handed.

*

Some other poor shit’s life.

I think about those early mornings in the kitchen, alone. The first pot of batch of coffee percolating, the radio blaring. Peeling, dicing, julienning. Burning the inside of my forearm pulling an over-laden sheet tray out of the lower oven. Knicking off the corner  of my thumbnail with a cleaver.

At noon, I’d step out back, walk into the wooded area behind the restaurant, smoke a joint, drink a mason jar of the beer I was using to braise pork-belly or short ribs.

At night, too wired to sleep, I’d sit up and write. Passable fictions, I thought. Made up stories about hard luck losers who occasionally got it right, or at least occasionally got away with it. I’d occasionally apply for other jobs, writing gigs, teaching gigs, something respectable so I could call the folks and brag a little.

I’d get my hopes up, get ’em dashed. Truth was, I was good in the kitchen, and it was starting to feel like where I was meant to be. Where I’d spend the rest of my life.

Then one day I came home, passed out on top of the covers with my greasy chef’s coat half-unbuttoned.

I woke up a year later in clean clothes, holding a reporter’s notepad to my chest.

That’s how it goes. A year passes, you don’t even recognize yourself in the mirror, but you can’t remember how it happened, when it changed.

I think about the missing girl. The years slipping away. A Ziploc bag with a bloody clump of skin and hair, in the basement of the county building. A charred police van. A defective memory card from a body cam. A strangled cry, a dull echo in the woods where no one who didn’t want to would hear it.

The fuck did I know about hard luck, or getting away with it.

*

I pull myself together, write up a local restaurant opening. I still know a lot of the local chefs, it just took a text message. Easy piece – the same old ‘farm to table’ shuck and jive, some tasteful food porn, a couple of quirky quotes from the owner.

The piece will sit nicely in the newsletter. People can only read so much crime, there’s a saturation point. But a new taco place? They’ll read it every day.

I must look like shit, because no one talks to me. I don’t mind. I file my story in peace and close my laptop.

“How’d your meeting go?” My editor asks as I’m packing up.

“It went fine.”

“He won’t talk? Or he’s full of shit?”

“One or the other.  Maybe both.”

My editor nods.

“Was worth a shot,” he says. “Shame. It’d be nice to bury them.”

I shrug, pick up my laptop bag, and walk out.

Bury them. His go-to euphemism, but an odd choice when you think about it. What – in this goddamn town – wasn’t already buried?

*

My wife is drifting off to sleep but I’m still tweaking the headlines newsletter for tomorrow. She doesn’t care if I’m a line cook or an editor, she says. I believe her. I think if we’re not homeless, and I’m happy, she’ll be happy.

That’s a hell of a thing.

She rolls over.

“Are you happy?”

Who gets to be happy? is what I want to say. Maybe stoned line cooks who are working too hard, too many hours a day, to run the risk of caring about what’s going on in the city around them. Was I happy, when that was me. I take a long drink of bourbon. I can’t remember. Maybe I was.

I set the glass down with a thud. She looks at the glass, at me.

“We can leave, get away from this. We could leave tomorrow. Go to the mountains. We could sell the car. Move to Iceland,” she says. “What do we really need? You and me.”

I lean over and kiss her.

“I’m serious. I’ll follow you anywhere, “she says.

She rolls over, turns off the lamp on her side of the bed. I stare at the newsletter layout, willing the typos and dead links to show themselves. They don’t. Instead, the screen starts to swim. Too much to drink. I set my alarm for six; I’ll fix it in the morning.

I turn off my lamp, try to tuck my body tightly against my wife’s. She takes my arm and holds it against her.

She knows we can’t leave. Or, rather, she knows I won’t leave. But she doesn’t say it. She kisses the knuckles on my hand and laughs quietly.

“I wish I knew what happened to our fucking spoons,” she says quietly.

 

Cartoons. Or, Putting all that goddamn authorial angst aside for minute and having some fun.

Writers are a dour bunch, they more or less have to be — that’s the part you play. But musicians – though they have their tortured moments – get to have quite a bit for more fun. This video was one of the most fun things we’ve done as a band.

 

I mean, it’s hard to take yourself seriously when you’re literally being cartoonish.

The idea was all Jeremy Roberts, who – in addition to being a really good bass player – has also pretty much taken the reins of our artistic direction (i.e. making videos). For the last couple of years he’s been working on his Master’s degree in digital animation and this was a chance for him to put some of that knowledge to use.

The live-action video was shot around Wilmington but the animation took place at a basement lab at NC State. That’s where Jeremy worked on his degree and that’s where the magic happened.

We took a day and drove up to Raleigh where we were rigged up in motion capture devices. It was a little surreal to see ourselves translated into 3D computer figures in real time and a little tricky to get the hang of, but we had a good time.

IMG_0754

A repeating glitch caused our right feet to become glued to the virtual floor. One attempt to fix the glitch severed the digital foot and caused us to (virtually) float away. Apparently that was the gravity foot.

What you won’t see in the finished video are a series of computer glitches, including one that caused our singer Pete’s digital avatar to break free of gravity – except his right foot, which stayed anchored to the virtual floor.  Pete performed the entire song while slowly being raptured into the digital heavens.

Another glitch forced flipped horizontal and vertical axes — which is how I ended up laying on the floor, playing air-guitar on a metal pole.

Also: you also won’t see how tightly the motion-capture units were strapped around our groins. But I assure, those fuckers were strapped on tight.

IMG_0759

Pete, strapped in but good.

This video was Jeremy’s baby and, ever the perfectionist, he probably would have worked for another month – or five or six – on it until he got it the way he wanted. But the rest of us, well, we were all pretty happy with it.

A special thanks to Julie Lineberry, Hilary Smith, Monica Nguyen and Nat Sumpunkulpak and the faculty at NC State for making the video possible — and for dealing with our incredibly juvenile behavior during the process.

The Olive Garden, Live in Concert

Author’s note: This story is fiction. It is a made-up story about a fictional version of a real fake version of a real band. Any similarities between this fiction and reality, or any of the iterations of fakeness, replication or simulacra in between fiction and reality, are purely coincidental. Olive Garden, on the other hand, is both real and fake, so good luck sorting that out.

“Christ on fire it’s hot,” Fake Bon Jovi says, more or less to himself.

The sun hangs low in the sky, the air over the parking lot blacktop waves like cartoon squiggles.

Fake Bon Jovi hangs back, leaving his band to soundcheck, adjusting spiny frosted-tip spears of hair around his balding crown. He removes his sunglasses, quickly and cautiously, and checks his make-up. His cheeks are sallow, bags hanging in overlapping folds beneath his bloodshot eyes.

Slippery When Wet – the ‘premier’ Bon Jovi cover band – has just wrapped up a fortnight at sea, a residency on Royal Caribbean Pearl of the Seas. Fake Bon Jovi is barely holding it together: it’s a thick, still, sopping wet hot outside, and he’s recovering from the bowel-rending ravages of some nautical disaster: Noro or E. Coli, the ultimate result of cramming that many people together on a floating shopping mall.

Now he’s trying to get his land-legs back (the platform heels and skin-tight pleather are not helping), and on top of that Jason – yes, that’s the real name of Fake John Francis Bongiovi – has already had too many luke-warm Landsharks from the Igloo cooler behind the stage.

Huddled around the cooler, a local band attacks the free beer with the gusto of people unaccustomed to free booze. They’re scraggly, harried, showing up with girlfriends and wives who help them carry their own gear. Fake Richie Sambora is taking nips from a bottle of rotgut bourbon with the local band’s guitarist, who looks like the kind of guy who would perpetually have a bottle of cheap liquor within reach. Fake Richie Sambora holds up his guitar, presents it for inspection like some fearsome Scottish Claymore. The local guy laughs, shakes his head, picks up the guitar, smiles.

Fake Bon Jovi doesn’t approve, wishes the Slippery When Wet guys would stay in character. Take their drummer, Fake Tico Torres; his soul patch is a sloppy rhombus of hair, not like Real Tico’s flawless Clovis Point. And Fake Tico put on like fifteen pounds on the cruise. Who gets fat eating sushi? Fake Fucking Tico.

Fake Bon Jovi spits out a mouthful of warm beer. And hamming it up with the local guys, Jesus. These dirtbags barely have one set of gear between them, cabinets all torn up, showing up in work clothes. Jesus. Fake Sambora is busting out the talk box. The local guys are howling. Worse than mockery, they’re actually into it. Fake Sambora is trying to show him up; he’s trying to pull a Real Sambora. But Bon Jovi isn’t a rock’n’roll band, it’s the Jon Bon Jovi show. Any Sambora knows that. Jesus.

Now the local band’s singer comes over to Fake Bon Jovi, smiling nervously.

“Thanks, man, for – uh – having us, I guess. We’re really excited to play. So, thanks.”

Fake Bon Jovi keeps his hands tucked in his armpits, sweat already soaking through his denim jacket. Why does Fake Sambora get to play in a sleeveless T? Mindy, their costume designer. That’s why. Frigid bitch. Fake Bon Jovi lets it drop. He looks past the local singer, sighing, and says:

“Yeah. Well, this was an unplanned stop. Kind of shit venue.”

The local singer glances at the stage, the rows of monitors, the heavy PA speakers, and looks back at Fake Bon Jovi.

“It’s a nice set-up, good sound,” the local guy says.

“Our drummer’s from here,” Fake Bon Jovi says, “so he wanted to play here. Stupid. We’re playing in Germany next.”

“That’s fucking cool,” says the local singer.

“Yeah,” Fake Bon Jovi rolls his eyes. “Cool. We’re a big deal in Germany.”

The local singer nods, takes his cue, and walks away. Fake Bon Jovi looks at his watch. Ten minutes to vocal check. Then he can finally get out of this fucking Apocalypse Now swelter and back to the hotel, maybe get a blowjob from the escort girl. Maybe not. She’ll probably want some of his coke, but Fake Bon Jovi has already torn through the eightball he scored at Myrtle Beach. Fake Tico was supposed to score some from one of his idiot hometown buddies. Fat chance. Real Tico would have had Real Bon Jovi hip-deep in blow, stat, no questions asked.

The sound guy shouts to Fake Bon Jovi and nods; Fake Bon Jovi pushes quickly through the crowd in the VIP area and jumps up on stage.

“Just fucking use the levels from last time, it’s the same — ” Fake Bon Jovi gets cut off, the sound guy winces and holds up an Apple tablet, shrugging. Fake Tico’s playing the whole kit behind him, like he’s fucking Fake Neil Peart. Oh, and now Fake Sambora’s got his goddamned talk-box going. Woaow-woaow! Whoa-whoa-whoa! The fucking noise eats up the whole bandwidth, it’s all you can hear. Fake Sambora has to blow the vowel-sounds into a tube next to his backing-vocal mic, and then it feeds into one of his little guitar pedals. He’s way too into it, Fake Bon Jovi thinks, it’s gross. Like he’s almost sucking on it. God. Can’t he just use a wah-wah pedal?

Finally, full band check with vocals. Fake Bon Jovi clears his throat and belts it out, looking out across the empty parking lot and up at the restaurants and bars, the patios and porches of apartment buildings down the block. He swings for the fences. From three blocks away you can hear people sing along, cheering, screaming. The band stops, already a crowd starts to gather.

“We’ll see you in a few hours folks,” Fake Bon Jovi says, speaking up over the small crowd that’s gathered. The crowd stays, curious. It’s a free show, and it’s too early to start drinking full on.

The sound guy nods to the local band and they start lugging their equipment on stage, laughing and joking. Amateurs.

“Sounded good,” the local singer says as he passes Fake Bon Jovi.

“Yeah,” Fake Bon Jovi says, nodding at the crowd, “they’re here for us.”

As Fake Bon Jovi heads for the enveloping cool of the hotel lobby bar, he hears the local band start to play. Some song no one’s ever heard before, one most won’t ever hear again. It’s not what people want, Fake Bon Jovi thinks. They want what they know, a chorus they can sing along to. This band, too herky-jerky. Some weird key, too much noodling, feedback. Amateurish or experimental, it doesn’t matter.

People don’t want that shit. They want Olive Garden, nothing weird, nothing unexpected.

But then he hears it. Fake Bon Jovi stops, turns slightly.

There’s actually a small crowd, gathered in front of the stage. They’re singing along. All the Whos down in Whoville, they’re actually fucking singing.

Something tugs at Fake Bon Jovi. He was young, once, a kid named Jason from a small town with a girlfriend he’d known since high school. He’d been in a band, played local bars — played his heart out for a dozen people. Loved every second of it.

But it didn’t matter; it didn’t pay.

Fake Bon Jovi remembers he tucked a bump away in the toe of his other pair of boots. He glances one more time at the locals, soaked in sweat, dancing to strange songs.

“Fuck this town,” Fake Bon Jovi says.

 

 

Brothers and Sisters: Sketches of Imaginary People I Once Knew

A bone once broken heals stronger, not so the mind.

No, brothers and sisters: when it breaks, it breaks hard, it shatters.

Just a warning.

*

A friend of mine recently posted some lyrics to a song he sang years ago – a song he still sings – when I was in a band with him. I can see him, to my left, over the headstock of my bass: half bent at the waist with the effort, microphone cord around his neck, tendons shredding out of his skin. Through the drugs and the liquor I can just make out that his eyes are closed. Out in the audience, the eyes are open in astonishment.

I had the lyrics wrong, all these years. And maybe we didn’t know each other very well at all. My hell, his hell, not different rungs on some inverted ladder, but different mansions in our father’s house. A book jacket glance at each other, a motel room with the mirror ripped off the wall and laid on the bed, spilling guts, swapping stories. Two things are true: I know him better than I know most people; I don’t know him at all.

But a man doesn’t scream those things – the things I thought he’d screamed, the things he was actually trying to say, things in between – and not like that, not for fun. He seems better these days. I’m sure I do too.

The doctors left the bullet in you, too close to all those vitals, all that precious wiring. It sings when you’re standing under the high tension wires. It sings all the time.

*

And the preacher’s oldest son, out there like a country song, a different dive bar every night. He’s quit more jobs than I’ve had, and he’s been better than me at every one of them. Same with women, more than likely. Most men lay awake praying – to someone, to everyone – that their house won’t burn down, that the sky stays sealed up for one more day. He’s burnt his own house down, with his head high and his heart full of song, and he’s done it more than once. He makes it look honorable, glorious, like a good fucking time.

It isn’t, it’s hard work. But prodigality ain’t a weekend in Vegas, now is it? You can’t simply drink yourself down onto your knees, crawl into the nearest marsh and die. No. An inheritance isn’t something you can smash with a hammer, not something you can burn down with a Molotov cocktail or two. You’ve got to be disciplined about it. You’ve got to take it apart brick by brick.

Your father, my father. In a way they understand, as all fathers understand. We get some of the very best of what our fathers are. We get some of the best and all of the worst.

*

Then there’s her, eyes on the window, the door, any and every exit, ready to OD again on wanderlust.

By the time you’re good at something you’re taken for granted, you’re machinery, you’re fucking furniture. By the time you’re good at something, it’s boring. And boredom is what death feels like, and there’ll be plenty of time for that, soon enough.

But it’s not as simple as that, because she hates to leave, agonizes over it every time. On travel shows, where the world-weary, jetlagged, hung-over host limps through another exotic city, stopping briefly and mournfully to share a bite to eat with some village chef, making beautiful food – simple and pure – there is a moment, the host and the chef, standing side by side. The chef spends his life over some little cast-iron range, the host forever on stand-by at the airport, in buses and trains and cabs. The chef can name every person who eats at his restaurant, except the host, who can’t remember anyone’s name.

And, watching this, her heart goes out – pours out – not to the host, who is kind of a prick anyway, but to the chef. The person who stays, who could not be compelled to leave, who in the ashcan of history makes a home, a home just the same. A beautiful thing in a bloody world miserably lacking in beauty.

Parents want their children to grow up and explore the world, and they want them safe at home. They want both, they can stand neither. We pull up anchor, hands off the rudder, let the sails fill, let the tides decide, let the wind be our answer, let fate obey itself.

You cry, a little, and then change the channel, finish packing your bags.

*

And then there’s Pilot. The space cadet. He looks like you, looks like me. But he does the thing we didn’t do – the things that were right, the things that were wrong – a test pilot, a fistful of drugs and a pint of liquor, up there at Yeager altitude, head on fire, falling through the sky, to see if its possible.

He hits the ground, mangled, burnt, and walks away.

It’s possible.

Our father is the sky, all we can do is fall away from it. All we can do is climb back up towards it.

*

They’re out there, years after I dreamed them, sketches that only mocked me: timid, near-sighted, young. There’s more to them than there is to me, my brothers and sisters. I can’t remember, sometimes, what is real and what isn’t. But I know they’re out there.

Hang in there, hold on to yourselves. Bend if you must, but don’t break. Your time is coming,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Long Arm

Brace yourself like a man;
    I will question you,
    and you shall answer me.

Would you discredit my justice?
    Would you condemn me to justify yourself?
Do you have an arm like God’s,
    and can your voice thunder like his?

-Job 40:7-9

*

This is fiction. So we’re clear.

*

The Chef’s got the day off – mowing the lawn, the kind of shit people with houses and families not only do but seem to look forward to – so the sous chef (let’s call him Ben) is cooking sans jacket and apron, just shorts and a black t-shirt, music loud, half-way into his second beer after having finished the lunch rush. He’s a little hungover but in otherwise good spirits. You can tell because the stove-top is a crowded skyline of stocks and soups, a cast-iron of garlic slowly spitting and browning, and a pot of dried chilies re-hydrating, anchos and guajillos, a few cascabel for that rattlesnake bite. There’s a bowl of warm dumpling dough proofing in the radiant heat of the panini grill and a pork shoulder, pulled from a long, slow overnight braise, resting on a cutting board. Ben’s rushing around in his typical way, washing dishes, playing a drum break on the counter top with metal tongs, slowly nudging a half-dozen projects along. Though this look like madness, yet there is method in’t. Slowly and steadily food – pretty good food – is coming out of the kitchen.

All is right with the world.

One of the counter-service girls comes back in the kitchen:

“What’s your last name?”

Ben tells her.

“Oh. Okay. I didn’t know. But these guys are here for you…so…”

Ben peaks over the counter: two guys, office manager types – sweater over dress shirt, sports-coat with no tie, comfortable shoes – wave politely at them. They look too relaxed to be health-inspectors (who travel alone, like giant squid, and kill for fun, also like giant squid), so Ben figures they’re product reps.

Coming around the counter he greets them:

“Hey boys, what can I do for y’all?”

The greeting – ‘boys,’ and ‘ya’ll’ – sounds almost natural, after ten years on and off in the south, Ben’s shaken any trace of south Jersey ‘kwoifee’ accent. But the bigger of the men draws back his lips over his teeth when he hears it. He’s not a food-rep, he’s under no obligation to make or take small-talk bullshittery. The man is not fooled. He extends his hand, a domineering almost vertical grip that pinions Ben’s hand. Ben doesn’t catch his name – no, he’s distracted by the top of a photo clipped inside a binder under the man’s arm, a ten-year-old photo of himself – but he does catch the agent, and treasury department, and he does not miss the pistol holstered under the man’s arm.

“Do you know what this is about?”

The man asks, but it’s not a question. Not really. Ben knows what this is about.

“Fucking Twitter,” he says.

“Is there someplace, quiet,” the shorter man says, in softening good-cop tones, almost pitying, as he gestures to the office door in the back, “somewhere we can do this?”

*

Three days prior, on Friday night, Ben and his wife get drunk to blow-off steam: working opposite shifts they’ve seen far too little of each other and – unlike the proverbial couples of yore – absence makes their hearts grow chapped and raw. But now they’ve got the night off and they celebrate, happy just to be around each other, and then they accidentally watch the news.

Things are bad – as a man once said – everybody knows things are bad.

They watch the news and drink too many bottles of wine and then Ben’s wife is crying. She has a heart, after all, and what sane person – their defenses already strained just making it through a week – takes a look at the world stage today and does not take it for a tragedy? Which is to say, bawl their eyes out?

Ben, for one. He has a heart – he doesn’t not have a heart, to be cagey and litotal about it – and he’s not a complete monster. But he does have a bad Russian habit, like Chekov, of misreading tragedy as comedy. If you squint, drunkenly, those drama masks look awfully fucking similar.

And so Ben, feeling six or seven fingers of whisky-clever, takes to social media to crack wise about the political circus slowly burning the country to the ground. He facetiously offers his assistance to candidate Marco Polo, flailing in the polls and getting ineloquently but effectively thrashed by the circus’s latest ringmaster, Donald Duck. Something along the lines of hit me up, assassination is the only way you’ll make it in the primaries. Or close to the that, 140 words or less. Not his best joke – three fingers is whisky-clever, six is whisky-daft – and likely disappear into the clamorous chatter of Twitter, like a pea-shooter fired into a hurricane.

But that is not what happens.

*

In the conference room of the office, the short agent is congenial – he complements the joint, mentions he’s glad to visit someone at an actual place of business, says he appreciates Ben taking the time, etc. – and the big agent is laconic but mellow.

“The last guy, oh, he was one of the sign twirlers, you know, like a tax-season guy, dressed up as Lady Liberty, he was at his mother’s house, still, um, in uniform, as it were…”

Then the questions. Ben’s married, coming up on ten years. The big agent warms, slightly. They talk about the different ways they’ve lost their wedding rings. Ben, twice when pulling of gloves, once in a batch of pizza dough. The shorter agent starts, “we’ve seen some fucked up…er, some situations, with rings, that wouldn’t come off, you just wouldn’t…” He glances at his partner, trails off, without explaining why the treasury department would need to remove someone’s wedding ring.

Car, make and model. Home address. Phone number. Parents residence. Last employer, reason for leaving. Level of education. They ask, Ben answers.

Don’t be mistaken, these are not questions. It is not a question – not truly, not an honest question – if you already know the answer. And the answers are arranged in a long list on the agent’s clipboard. They ask, Ben answers, and they put a check-mark if he tells the truth.

“Okay,” says the short agent,”So, why don’t you tell us about what you posted.”

Ben considers lying, someone hacked my account, or I left it in the office and someone kid was playing with it, but he decides lying to federal agents is a bad idea. So he tells them what happened: a bad and drunken joke.

“Just a joke,” he says, shaking his head, “and I get that, you know, you have to come out here, and I’m sorry for that, but it was absolutely a joke. A bad joke. I’m sorry.”

The agents look at each other, then back at Ben.

The short agent says, “Yeah, look, we get that. And we appreciate how cooperative you’ve been, you seem like a normal guy. But, uh, the thing is, it’s still against the law.”

The big agent chimes in, arms crossed, “Let’s be clear, you’ve committed a federal felony.”

The short agent shoots him a look, then glances back at Ben, saying, “Well, yes, it is a felony. And we do have to, now, of course, contact the district Attorney. And we have to ask you some more questions.”

*

You imagine your life a certain way. You have hopes – of course, foolish or realistic, you’ve got plans – and more than that you have a rhythm, what you do today, what you did yesterday, what you’ll do tomorrow. With whom you’ll spend your time. That rhythm is the bedrock of your life, and it’s difficult to disturb, hard to shake.

Death: that can shake it. When someone you love dies, you get a feeling, like you’ve been knocked loose of your foundation. It can be freeing – a horrible thing to admit, but true just the same – and oddly exhilarating feeling. The death of a loved one frees you from social protocol: you don’t have to make small-talk, don’t have to pretend to like doing things you don’t like, you can get shitfaced at 9 a.m., you can skip work, run naked into the ocean. Whatever you like. For a short period of time. Then the rhythm returns.

This, for Ben, sitting in a small conference room, florescent lights flickering, a pair of handcuffs glinting under the flap of the agent’s jacket, this is something similar, but more. A loved one dies, you’re thrown off course, but you recover. Now the threat is imprisonment, the long arm of the law reaching out, like God’s own grizzled paw careening down from the heavens to swat him into oblivion. Prison. Like a living death. No more nights with his wife, no more writing or music, no more cooking, no more anything.

*

“Have you committed suicide?”

Ben looks up, blinking. The agents glance at each other. Ben glances at his own wrists, tattooed but otherwise un-scarified.

“Um,” he says, venturing a faint grin, “have I what?”

The agent glances down at his checklist.

“Oh. Sorry. Have you attempted suicide?”

“Oh,” Ben smiles, “no, no I haven’t.”

“Have you thought about it?”

Ben pauses, just for a moment. Is now the time for a joke about Camus? And didn’t he say, anyway, that the only really serious problem left is the consideration of suicide? What intelligent person doesn’t consider it, at least academically. And what sane person, whose heart is not cinders, does not look around this world and – at least once – say, ‘okay, I am through here.’ Beam me up, Scotty, I’m fucking done.

But Ben smiles and lies, “no, God. Who’d run the kitchen?”

The agents nod, smiling back. The Protestant work ethic, still earning hot’n’melty brownie points.

The shorter agent asks, “Are you ever depressed? Anxious?”

Ben lies.

“Are you political?”

Is it an option not to be? Is this the time for a conversation about imperialism, or capitalism, a chat about white privilege or the patriarchy… is this the time for anything, anything at all, anything but shit-eating lies, desperate like a man caught trash-talking God himself, now slapping a bloodied palm over his own mouth and dropping to his knees?

No. Ben lies.

“Do you ever consider violence against the government, or any political candidate? Do you have any interest in guns, or weapons, or political revolutions? Do you use drugs? Do you drink heavily? Do you have any eccentric religious beliefs?”

The answer to these questions – which, again, are nothing like questions, nothing at all – is to say, ‘no,’ and ‘Jeez, not really,’ and to laugh nervously and honestly. To fucking lie your ass off. This Ben does, and the agents wrap things up.

Near the end, the agents hold a 8.5’x11′ piece of paper, with a low-rez printout picture of Ben. He’s sweaty drunk, playing a bass guitar in some dive-bar, wearing a t-shirt that reads “Fuck You You Fucking Fuck.” The agents show it to Ben.

“Needs a comma,” Ben says.

“You look like a pretty angry guy here,” the big agent says, arms crossed, “turns out, you played in a pretty angry punk rock band.”

“Post-punk,” Ben says.

The big agent furrows his brow, the shorter agent starts to say something, but gets cut off.

“You said you weren’t political.”

“Punk isn’t…and we weren’t…look, that was, what, ten years ago? I was a kid. Angry, sure, but what kid isn’t angry. Right?”

“Lot’s of kids aren’t angry,” says the big agent, “you come from a nice family, went to a fancy school…”

“It was a state school.”

The agent glares, then continues, “A pretty fancy school. Lots of kids who had those opportunities wouldn’t be angry. And lot’s of people aren’t. Wouldn’t be here, sitting here, having committed a federal felony.”

“Okay, okay.”

Ben shrugs.

“I was selfish, you know, narcissistic. I didn’t think about anyone else. It’s easy to be mad when you do that. I was angry, just about personal things. I didn’t see any bigger picture.”

He surprises himself. He’s told the truth. The short agent, sensing an opportunity, says, “And now?”

“And now I do. Now I just worry about local stuff, things I can help with, like working here.”

The shorter agent nods at his colleague, satisfied. They fill out a few more forms. Ben signs away his privacy rights: medical records – to see if he’s been on prescription drugs or treated for mental illness – and the rights to search his house and car. Ben figures, what’s the point? They aren’t Vampires. They don’t really need permission to come in. The forms – like the questions – aren’t real. They’re tests. To see if you’ll behave. To see if you’ve learned your lesson.

Ben signs them.

*

Now Ben sits alone in his apartment – still unsearched, unraided by black-clad, armored government forces – and drinks a beer, strumming a strange chord on the guitar.

The gods are all quiet, hushed. When the old Volcano god of the desert shows up, all hellfire and whirlwind, even those brash Nordic types slink off. It’s just the trickster gods, who stick around. Loki. Dolos. Coyote. Even they’re pretty rattled.

Coyote, who is doing his best cat imitation to keep his profile low, scratches behind his ear. Ben looks at him.

“What?”

“You’re really chickenshit. You should have given them what-for. You didn’t break the law.”

“I kind of did.”

“Horseshit on toast! You didn’t threaten anyone.”

“I offered -“

“Right, well, they only way your threat was real, would be if someone took you up on it, and I think he’d be in a bigger tub of hot shit than you.”

“You’re a lawyer now?”

“Hey. When you’ve been on the receiving end of as many treaties as I have, you start feeling your way around the legal tongue, you know?”

Ben sips his beer.

“Well, you’re hiding in a cat suit, so, there’s that.”

Coyote cocks his head at him.

“You’ve got to be smarter. Or at least less literal. That’s the thing about the big G. Super fucking literal, that one.”

“What, so now I’ve got to be a magical realist?”

“God I hate that term. That term is fucking racist, did you know that? And reductive. No. I’m saying, be smarter, okay, smart guy. After all, you went to a pretty fancy school.”

Ben sips his beer and smiles.

“I did.”

“Next time be smarter.”

“Next time I’ll be smarter.”

Coyote smiles, and then – distracted by the glint of a Christmas ornament under the couch, bolts across the room and disappears.

Long Year City

Last year was a dark year, a year of the old gods. We fought the good fight and lost. The war ground on. Attrition. A slow and unstauchable bleeding. At work, we tried to hold the line, for good food, for good people, losing ground all the time.

Then our work casloppy ript Sloppy died, drowned in a weeklong deluge. We had, over the the year, earned her trust. Brought her from her nervous perch in the forest to the edge of our kitchen, fed her, and even petted her, once or twice. But Sloppy was a wild animal and would not – perhaps could not – be changed. She came as close as she did to teach her sole surviving kitten that we could be trusted. Her kitten – Biscuits – was trusting and friendly, allowing us to pick him up, play with him, take him to the vet, and eventually our baker adopted him.

It was the last thing Sloppy did, her final and instinctively devoted sacrifice. We found her body and buried her. Pete and I dug the grave. Christopher sang ‘The Pipes are Calling.’ It’s you must go, and I must bide. We poured out our liquor. And we went our separate ways that day, knowing it was over for us. When the gods cast their judgement, they cast it deep in your heart. You just know.

After that, it was just a matter of time. Some quit, some got fired. I stayed behind, to fight the lonely fight, the war against callow mediocrity and bloodless corporate cheapness. I stayed, but not heroically. I stayed out of necessity, and stubbornness, and blindedness. I stayed because my heart was too broken to move on.

Heartbroken, because last year our best friend died.

I’m just now almost able to talk about it. ‘Almost,’ meaning I can joke about it: awful, cruel jokes. But hurling hurt back at the world is not the same as coming to terms with it. My wife is getting a tattoo – the first, last, only portrait I think she’ll get – and our longtime artist could barely make it through the sketch without crying. I doubt either of them will fare better during the actual session. Tattooing – the time, the pain, the process – is often about catharsis. I hope it will be for my wife.

As for me, I’ll be getting the same portrait, in a few months when the money’s saved up and our artist has recovered. But I need something more. For three months, I’ve needed to scream and had no mouth. The death of my friend wrecked me. I woke up early, long before the sun, everyday. I woke up and I just stood in the empty kitchen, staring at the empty living room. He wasn’t there. My hands felt like numbed stumps. I walked, alone, around the collecting pond near my apartment. The gravel crunched, ospreys cried out in the trees. I picked up my guitar, strummed an old chord progression, and felt nothing. I stared at blank screens, cursor blinking, ticking away time, ticking away nothing. I tried: wrote a few weak false starts.

I was writing pointless sentences, playing boring chords, cooking meager food. All I wanted to do was sleep and I was developing chronic insomnia.

I’d stare at my ceiling, stare at the woods, stare at the road. I’d remember his face.

It’s hard. It is very hard to make yourself accountable for the grief of a dead dog. For many people, I did not try. What words could close that chasm? They’d have to be there, with me, to be me, as I stood there, in the quiet little room at the veterinary hospital, pushed the plunger on the syringe, and felt my best friend slip away in my arms. Every day for ten years, for the entirety of my marriage, the entirety of my adult life, I have woken up to his face and fallen asleep to it. Now it just a memory: his eyes, growing heavy, for the last time.

I have a picture, that I will not show you here, of his tired, swollen face. My face is pale and tired, my wife’s face is bruised from crying. A ruptured cancer in his stomach caused him to bleed out. His heart was so strong that he survived for a over a week; most dogs would have died instantly. When my wife and I adopted him, his heart was so weak he was not allowed to play, or walk more than a block. But he was, in the end, the strongest living creature I ever met. In the picture, you can see what that strength granted him: grace and dignity. He didn’t die in his sleep, or in the back room on a metal table. He waited, until we were there, to see him off. In the picture you see it, in his eyes, through the drugs: resignation, peace. He was ready to say goodbye.

He was ready, I was not.

I am still not.

.

unnamed

Maximilian Caesar Bear, 2003-2015

It is so hard to make yourself accountable to people. Dogsgrief. That should be a word. It should mean, to the lucky, to the uninitiated, a kind of secondhand mourning, a minor injury. And, to the unlucky, to those who have lost a best friend, it would mean something else. A dog is not a human, though so often my friend seemed like a human in a dog suit. They are something else, an alien intelligence, a kind martian: wiser and dumber and different than us, but no less worth our love – and thus, our grief – in their time with us.

We lost a lot in 2015, too much by far. It was dark for nearly half the year.

But Bear, my best friend, hated sadness. He would not tolerate crying or moping. He would press his face into yours, on the verge of speech, trying to cheer you up. He would be annoyed and ashamed at me, for the fallow months that have followed his death. A pitiful thanks for the years he gave me, the joy, the heart.

And so, 2016. My heart still feels broken, like a black meteorite stuck in my chest. But I cannot wallow any longer. Bear would be pawing at the floor, pressing his muzzle to my face, nipping at my hands, barking at the door. Bear would want rock’n’roll, and stories, and food, and adventure.

And he shall have them.

The gods be damned, he shall have them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The War

…I have a dream. I’m watching a titanic battle between my brother and the monsters of the underworld, and my brother is killing one after another with a huge shotgun. The monsters are cartoonish and murderous and it doesn’t matter how many he kills because there’s an endless supply of them.

Eventually he just runs out of ammo, I realize. Eventually the monsters will win.

Sebastian Junger, War

 

Where did July go? Evaporated in the triple digit slow cooker heat? I don’t know, but it seems likely. I’ve been head down, in the mud, working, trying to push the boulder up the hill – fuck that Sisyphus slacker – I’ve been pushing a half dozen boulders up a half dozen hills. Something’s gotta give, my wife says. I love her, need that optimism, something to cut the bitter, overproof whiskey doubt in my heart. But nothing has to give. Nothing gives until you break it. So, in lieu of a status report, let me just say things are cooking. Slow cooking, but cooking. (Less obliquely: in the fall, there’ll be new fiction – including a piece in Sixfold’s Summer 2015 release – and new rock and roll – Exploding Math Lab’s EP2 is going to be a thunderous monster. New stuff, even better than the old stuff. Guaranteed.)

In the meantime, it’s war.

Not the war abroad. No, though I mean no disrespect; we’ve all got friends and family over there, somewhere. Whatever the (shitty) politics that got them there. I’m talking about a different war, an older war. The war at home.

The war inside.

Turn on the TV, and you see the casualties. The ruined cities, monuments to the victors: apathy, complacency, sloth, and fear. ­Makes you wish the real horsemen would show up. But instead we get EL James, Guy Fieri, Jeb Bush, and Stan Lee. Yes, Stan Lee – you aren’t off the goddamn hook, no sir. Stan Lee phoned in a lot of his creations, and they’ll be clogging the bowels of Hollywood for decades to come.

I turn on the radio – ill-advisedly, I know – and you can actually hear the sound of people surrendering. It sounds like 4/4 timing, mid-tempo ‘rock’ that sounds just like mid-tempo ‘pop’ and mid-tempo ‘country.’ White flags flying over every radio station.

Okay, so it’s the mediocrity in the arts rant? Not so original. And not so bad, either, if that was the end of it. Because, honestly, if you’re going to write, or make music, or cook food, then maybe it’s not so bad to have nothing but mediocre hacks as your competition. Just lined up – dumb faces upturned – for you to trounce. And maybe, then, you could startle people out of their stupors. I remember the first time I ate real cheese. (Wait. What? Hold on, stay with me.) Unpasteurized, unhomogenized, unfuckedaroundwith. I thought: this is how the gods eat. That’s how you could make people feel.

But the war isn’t about artists versus imitators, or the stagnation of American creativity (by a school system and a broader culture that enforces safeness and timidity, no less). Those are symptoms, cropping up here and there.

The war is everywhere.

The war is at work, for example.

Last week, I fired a long time employee. There were lots of reasons. First and foremost, she made terrible food. She only knew about four or five recipes, and – even after she’d been warned, ordered, begged, not to make these things – as soon as you turned your back on her, she’d scurry around, making one of these awful creations. Cinnamon-sugar sweet potatoes, in July. Roasted vegetables, deflated and unseasoned, some raw and some cooked to shit. Broccoli salad that was 90% mayonnaise by weight (and also, for no apparent culinary reason, contained wildly expensive amounts of raw pine nuts).

When she washed dishes, she’d cram four or five times too many things into the machine, leaving you with racks of food-flecked dishes after she left. She’d go on break during the busiest hour of lunch, sitting at the computer in a room adjoining the kitchen, smiling dumbly, the way a child does when they shit their pants without even realizing it.

At one point, a few months back, she asked, ‘when you fire me, can you please give me two weeks’ notice first?’ Not if. When. She knew, in the dimmest possible sense, that she was bad at her job. She didn’t know why and she didn’t want to. She didn’t want to learn, or improve, or change in any way. She wanted to punch her time and then leave. When you told her, the way you cut vegetables is so wildly ineffective and insanely dangerous that it is difficult to watch for longer than a split second, she’d just say, ‘oh, I’ve been doing it this way for a long time.’

And there it was, the battle cry of the enemy: it’s always been this way.

Every day at work, our pay gets docked a half-hour. Why? Because, a while back, when the kitchen was run by a brigade of crackheads and slackers, employees abused the paid breaks to the point where they’d wander off, for hours at a time. Hours. So management’s solution, with their signature mix of underhandedness and cowardice, was to automatically dock all employees a half-hour. And now, that the kitchen is being run by actual cooks, who do not take breaks (because, quite simply, there is too much goddamn work to be done, at all times), why does the deduction still exist? Management scratches their head, as if this is some kind of eternal mystery. Well, it’s always been this way. It’s a felony – wage theft is a fucking felony, let’s be clear – and an insult. Management rubs their belly, eyes drifting to the buffet, conversation already stillborn and cold, I dunno, it’s just always been that way…

There’s no devil, no demon, in any myth or nightmare, as vicious and vile as that sense of complacency.

Well, you know, summer blockbusters, they’re always kind of dumb…the radio always sucks though…well, some people like unlimited breadsticks…we’ve it’s always been a man’s job…it’s always been illegal to buy beer before noon on Sunday…but marriage has always been about a man and a woman (or seven hundred women)… the shit was actually already on the floor, it was here when I got here so…well…but…you know … it’s…always….been…this….way.

We fight it. Try to educate, recruit, at least hold the line. One battle at time, dispelling one stupid myth after another, cutting down one stubborn, mule-headed motherfucker after another, on our hands and knees, shoulder deep down a clogged drain, scrubbing until our hands bleed, working harder and longer than the summer sun. I don’t think the war will ever be over. It doesn’t matter, how many fires we put out, how many rocks we shoulder up the hill, how many monsters we put down. The enemy has the sheering force of brute stupidity. He’s got the high ground, he has numbers, he’s got time.

But that’s why the gods allow evil, to give us something to fight. To prove ourselves, if only to ourselves. (Running joke: shouting ‘prove it to yourself,’ to guys who clearly have something to prove, rag-top German coupes, diamonds on their watch, running shirtless through downtown. Still, beneath the joke, a little truth: who else would you want to prove anything to?)

But that’s the story: you’re born, you fight like hell, then you die. Better than nothing, better than boredom. Better than eating at Olive Garden. So, if you’re out there, and you give a goddamn – about something, about anything – and you know what I mean, then may the gods give you their blessing, or at least stay the fuck out of your way.

12 Ways to Massacre Your Enemies on Valentine’s Day

Last month I promised several things, and – unlike the pizza guy in a mild dusting of Carolina snow – I am here to deliver, goddammit.

*

First, Short Work. ‘Mystery’ went live earlier this month at the Eckleburg Review (and, if you dig that, the Eckleburg folks had me back to talk about the writing of the piece, here). Also, I’ve added links to two stories you aren’t likely to find in your local bookstore: the novelette ‘Dear Penthouse’ – about a model struggling with mental illness, from the Conium Review – and ‘The House of the Dogs’ – about fine dining and war crimes, from Confingo, across the pond. Yes, I said ‘novelette,’ and yes, that is a thing. A good thing.

Stay tuned for two more shorts, coming in early March: ‘A Prayer for War’ delayed but most certainly coming, from Bloodstone, and ‘Horizon’ from PIF Magazine. (‘Horizon,’ is by far the most NSFW thing I’ve had published, so if you’re never been to HR for the ‘uses and practices’ lecture, make sure to read that one at work).

*

Next, Rock’n’Roll. Exploding Math Lab has an EP, and you can listen to it. Like Radiohead, we’ll let you pay whatever you want for it (including nothing). Unlike Radiohead, we won’t be mopey, pretentious pricks about it. Check it out: https://explodingmathlab.bandcamp.com/releases – I don’t write our lyrics, but I did write our track notes. Thought I’d put the English degree to good use.

And, of course, we’re playing all over this tiny Carolina town, so if you’re passing through, show up, and we’ll buy you a beer and break your eardrums. Lovingly, of course.

*

New Project(s). It’s happening, but it’s top fucking secret (that’s one step above top secret).

*

Finally: Twelve Ways to Massacre Your Enemies of Valentine’s Day.

Valentine’s Day is the Normandy Invasion for an Italian restaurant in a town without too many fine dining options. Unfortunately for me, in this metaphor, the cooks are the hapless Wehrmacht regulars, given the impossible task of holding off the relentless Americans and their corn-fed optimism, while our cowardly Nazi superiors scamper off at the crucial moment to avoid death or capture.  Our latest chef, Oberstarzt Brian, quit a week before Valentine’s Day, after thinning our ranks with his incompetence and inexperience.  Our management seemed almost disinterested in the massive horde of hungry Americans gathering on the horizon. And, despite having no leadership, we were told we were in no position to make decisions for ourselves.  Outnumbered and underappreciated, we were hung out to dry.

Still, when the onslaught came, we gave it hell.

Why?

I can tell you this: it was not for the customers. We’re happy they had a good time, ate some good food, had a nice evening. But that has very little to do with it. We did it because no one was going to do a better job than us. Good food deserves to be made, regardless of who eats it. Once it leaves the window, we’re on to the next thing.

Now, cooking is not like playing music which is not like writing. But they share a few things. You don’t do it for the money, or the fame, or the glory. And you don’t do it for the audience. That sounds crude, and pretentious, and solipsistic, but it’s true. Ninety percent of the people who come into the restaurant want fettuccini alfredo or lasagna, not because it’s authentic or made with care, but because it’s a relatively inexpensive, because it’s two pounds of rich, fatty, carby, comfort. Ninety percent of people who like what’s on the radio, they like Nickleback’s new single, and Two and a Half Men, and 50 Shades of Grey because they think these things are edgy. It’s just helping after helping of alfredo, unlimited breadsticks, ranch dressing poured over everything.*

But this isn’t a rant about American unexceptionalism.  This isn’t what Kanye, in his stunningly inarticulate way, tried to say about Beck, or what Jonathan Franzen, in his dickishly eloquent way, tried to say about Jennifer Weiner.

Because the writers whose work I’m reading, the bands whose music I’m listening to, the chefs whose food I’m eating, they don’t give a shit what you call them. And they don’t care what other artists are doing wrong and whether the people are eating it up. They care about writing, and music, and food. They’re working their asses off, they’ve got blinders on, because they need that focus. But they aren’t doing it for me, for anyone else. We aren’t entitled to it. In all likelihood, we do not deserve it.

What I’m saying is, if I sit in traffic, listening to an awful song, that is on me. If I go to a crappy taco place – when there’s a legit Mexican joint across the street – that’s on me too. If I only pick up a book because it’s become a movie, and it bores me to tears, if I go to the movies and see some half-thought-out piece of Bruckheimer garbage, if I keep paying for cable ‘reality’ TV, all of that, that great big plate of alfredo and the slow, boring death that comes with it, that is all on me.

As an audience member, someone who loves good food, rock’n’roll, books and movies, it’s easy to blame the artists, to see them as the enemy, to see their greed and indifference as the driving force behind your own boredom. Why do we have this plastic culture? Because that’s the only one offered to us. It’s easy to wish a plague on the houses of Hollywood and Manhattan.

And, as an artist – as a cook, or a writer, or a musician – it’s easy to see the audience as the enemy, to wish them up against the wall. It’s tempting to see their laziness and complacency, their entitlement and ignorance, as the scapegoat for your shortcomings. Why have we not struck it rich? Because the audience is too stupid to understand what we’re doing.

But there are no enemies to massacre, except the ones in our heads. Laziness and greed, boredom and fear, and – the worst of the bunch – entitlement.

No one is owed anything. Not artists, not audiences.

We can go out and find the good shit, or we can make it ourselves, or we can take what they give us. We can go to our local bars and listen to live music, go to a new restaurant, go online and read something weird. Or we can go to fucking Olive Garden.

It’s on us.

 

*

Next time: ‘From the Vault’ – a true story I can’t stop telling even though I don’t remember it at all anymore.

*

 

*Yes, I know I more or less stole this from Gaffigan’s “Mr Universe” special, but – in my defense – Jim Gaffigan is unlikely to read this blog, and if you the reader recognized the theft, then at least I know you’ve got good taste in comedy.

 

Ten Years

It feels like ten years since I’ve posted something. In fact, it’s been two months. That’s not too bad if you think of this blog as monthly, a little worse if you know I was going for bi-weekly (or even weekly, a ludicrous plan). In any case, what happened? Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, the holiday gauntlet: more food and alcohol than anyone would care to see – laid out on a long table, as a cold, objective accusation – and a few thousand miles of driving. Now I’m back – back to work, and work – and it’s story time again,

*

But, first, some brief news.

-I’ve got a ‘project’ out to editors as we speak. I suppose discretion is best here, but I can say this: I’m halfway through a strange month.

-Exploding Math Lab, the very loud band I’m playing guitar for, had a listening party the other night (by which I mean a few dudes standing around in a living room). After finishing mastering, and re-mastering, we’re beginning to sound an awful lot like a real rock’n’roll band. We’ve even got a CD to give out. A physical CD! Only about ten years after physical CDs went out of style. But still, we’re pretty excited. Check us out on Facebook (don’t worry, we’re the only Exploding Math Lab out there). We should be posting some of the mastered clips really soon. Next steps: full album, world tour, catastrophic substance abuse, creative differences, tragic and mysterious death(s), cooling off period, heating up period, reunion rumors, reunion denials, actual reunion, comeback album, world flooded by melted icecaps (except for the upper half of Billionaire’s row on Central Park South).

-Those two short stories really are coming, I promise. “Mystery” – the lovechild of Chuck Palahniuk and Garrison Keillor – goes live at John Hopkin’s T.J. Eckleburg Review on February 2nd. It’s part of their ‘Salon’ series, so you’ll have the opportunity to publicly ridicule me or to make a long series of protracted inside jokes with me in their discussion forum. Yeah? Yeah. “A Prayer For War” goes live at Bloodstone Review, very soon. It’ll be worth the wait. Seriously. It was good enough, after all, to convince the very thoughtful and aesthetically discriminating editors to publish it, even though I used the phrase “motherfucking motherfucker.” Twice. Sorry Mom.

*

Okay: Ten years.

For a lot of reasons, I’m particularly struck by the ten-year span. It shows up my work, all the time, because it shows up in my life, all the time. I often think the gods dole out their rewards and punishments in deep, Homeric allotments. I also feel that karma has a ten year transit, and that trauma takes a good ten years to come to the surface. And, it’s also just a strangely firm anchoring point, in a sea of memories that slip away as soon as you try to grapple with them.

Recently, at the restaurant, we were given a new chef. If that sounds awkward, it’s meant to. It’s been a difficult transition and – since last year’s Tobin debacle – things have been tense. Our new chef is not a bad guy, he’s knowledgeable and hard-working (the opposite of Tobin, who’s equine corpse I’ll kick till Kingdom come). I like him enough not to use his real name here. Still, the situation is a bag of shit. You can write whatever you want on the bag of shit, but there is no eloquence, no articulation, that can perform alchemy. That’s no bag of gold we’ve been left holding.

And, in spite of this, our new chef comes to the holiday party, with his wife, ready to have some* drinks and take some ribbing. I go with my wife, promising to leave after a few** drinks, but eager to blow off some steam, and see my friends from work without the 120’F heat or the threat of burns, cuts, and lower-back injuries.

And, yes, I’m going somewhere with this.

At a certain point in the night, our new chef introduces himself and his wife to me and my own wife. My wife and I stop cold. We already know the chef’s wife. Then we’re laughing, the three of us – the chef standing off to the side, confused – hugging and cursing in surprise, the way you do when you run into someone who knew you at a certain time in your life, someone who will, no doubt, have deeply compromising stories to tell about you . I slap the chef on the shoulder and say, ‘I have known your wife for a really, really long time.’ And the next day, it occurrs to me just how creepy that must have sounded, and I eventually find a (somewhat) tactful way of clearing up the lingering implications. But I had known her for a long time, or rather, I’d known her a long time ago.

This was before I’d gotten married, gone to New York, before graduate school. I was just out of college, occasionally mohawked and always savagely drunk. I was in a punk band, living off stolen food from restaurant gigs.I  would eventually become the kitchen manager, and pull my shit together a little bit, but not a lot; even after I got the KM job, the veggie crisper in my fridge was full of beer. Not cans of beer. Beer. I’d ladle my coffee mug in there for breakfast.

And of course, there were drugs. But that’s a story for another time (February?).

Now, I have a memory, from that time, one of the few really clear ones: It’s near two in the morning, and I’m drunk, and a little high. We’re the last band playing and a lot of the crowd has left, but there’s about a dozen people, pressed up against the stage. We’re playing our last song. Our singer, stripped to the waist, a trickle of blood on his neck and chest, beer soaked shorts, is singing into the microphone, ‘this one’s for you, this one’s for you.’ And right up front, three or four people, that I knew but not well, they start crying. Weeping, openly, tears running down their faces.

And I was new to the band, I hadn’t helped write the song and I didn’t even know what it was about – I didn’t even know all the notes, I was the bassist and I could fake about half of it – so I couldn’t do anything but play along, suddenly more of a spectator than the people in the crowd. They were more a part of the band, more a part of what was happening at that moment than I was then or would ever be. And that was okay. It was beautiful and I was grateful. It could have been the whiskey and the cocaine, but I my eyes teared up, and I threw my hair in front of my face and kept playing.

I had, right then, the idea for a story, not the whole thing, not a novel-sized epiphany. But I knew what I wanted to write about, and I went home that night, wired and drunk, and wrote until the sun came up and I stumbled into the kitchen for a mug of beer. That was me, ten years ago.

And that’s the thing. When I have that memory, when I summon it, or when it summons itself, unbidden, just showing up in the middle of some other thought like an emergency broadcast from the past, I see myself on that stage. And it’s me. Which is to say, it’s me now, with my grad school objectivity, my post-modern referentiality, thirty years of scars and book learning, a hot heart with cold aesthetics. But then? Ten years ago? Who was that guy? Joan Didion put it nicely, “I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be.” 

The day after the holiday party, the chef tells me how wild it was, us all knowing each other. I don’t nit-pick the nuances of ‘us;’ it feels like an honest gesture. He tells me his wife went home, riffling through stacks of old photographs, looking to see if she can find a photo of me. Ten years ago, in 2005, we all had cell-phones but I can’t remember any of them having a camera. After a while, she gave up. The chef tells me, ‘my wife says it’s too bad, she’s says it’s funny, says Ben was just a baby.’

I also went home and dug around. Turns out, I do have one photo of myself at that time. I don’t remember when it was, exactly, or which shithole club it was in. It’s a low-res shot, probably taken by the sound guy. I’ve got wet hair – a whore bath after working a shift, likely – and a t-shirt I’d stolen from my roommate that says Fuck You You Fucking Fuck. So it could have been any day of the week.

drunk

It’s clear: the guy in this picture is just a baby. A clammy, chubby-faced, sweaty-drunk baby. Smart, maybe, but surely not wise, strung out but with no clue what ‘tired’ means. I was not even close to having earned my cynicism. I think I know this guy, I think I love him sometimes, and sometimes he scares the shit out of me. Sometimes he embarrasses me and sometimes I’m so proud. He is and he isn’t me. I’m sure he felt that way about the teenager he used to be. I’m sure in ten years someone will feel that way about me.

*

Coming in February: Short Work, rock’n’roll, new projects, and 12 great ideas on how to massacre your enemies of Valentine’s Day.

*Many, many.

**Seriously, so many. It’s an open bar.

The Ballad of Tobin McAfee*

It’s been a month or more since I’ve posted here, so I apologize for the radio silence (hopefully no one was deeply concerned). Good news, I haven’t just been sitting on my ass. I’ve got a number of short stories coming out – one, in print, from the UK, and two online (check out the Short Work page for details and links) – and my band is in the process of recording our first EP (stay tuned for release information and clips).

But today, more than shamelessly plugging my authorial or musical endeavors, I want to tell you a short story – nonfiction, for a change – about the last month. One day, no doubt, the events on the last five weeks will show up in my fiction, a minor character, perhaps, but probably something more. There’s an epic poem to be written, the Aeneid of the kitchen world, heroes and heroines struggling against gods and nature and – most of all – the petty, slovenly evil of mortal men. Great works need great villains, and for the last month I have seen the great villainy, the very incarnation of sloth, indifference, gluttony, and deception.

Okay, a bit much, but just a bit.

In early October, the restaurant where I work hired a drug-addled scam-artist who boasted that he – amongst other things – spoke four languages, was close personal friends with several NFL coaches, bested the US Pastry Team by himself, held the position of chef de cuisine for the Hilton in NYC’s financial district in 2002 (when the restaurant was closed after 9/11), could break down a beef tenderloin in three minutes with 0% percent waste, and could get everyone in the restaurant – including the dish-washers – hefty raises during a recession, even though he was there to cut labor costs. These were all gross misrepresentations, which is to say, these were bald-faced lies. He could not cook (he set fire to every sauté pan I ever saw him touch), he had no original culinary ideas (and plenty of bad ones he borrowed, mostly from the 80s), his budgetary math was the product of coke-fueled hallucinations. He could not even run the salad station – he went down in flames and nearly took the rest of the line with him. He may have once been a passable cook – maybe even a human being – which is a sad thought, because by the time he came to us he was the apotheosis of every joke about kitchen nightmares, a myth made flesh, the worst boss I’ve ever had, a fucking clown. His name was Tobin McAfee, and if he comes to your restaurant in his shiny red VW Beetle, waste no time: kick him in the gut and throw him out.

The good news is that Tobin was brilliant material, a horrowshow of a human being, but further proof that real life can and will exceed satire, that those spectacular failures of reality TV fame are not always the products of scripts and clever editing. I’ll be dining out on stories of just how unbelievably awful this guy was, for months, if not years. He was a walking, talking, shit-packed novel of terribleness, and for that, I thank him. And, it’s worth pointing out, that Tobin brought some light with his darkness. The staff of the restaurant bonded together in ways I hadn’t expected, in the presence of Tobin’s inhuman and inhumane shittiness, we saw and treated each other as human being. We aspired to be better, in every way, in our every thought and deed; we found ourselves turning to Tobin as our negative Savior: what would Tobin not do? Tobin wouldn’t recook that burnt pizza, so we would. Tobin wouldn’t stay late to help the dishwasher close, so we would. Tobin wouldn’t work hard, tell the truth, or treat people decently. So we did. And, as our real chef struggled – to keep from murdering Tobin, to keep the food from suffering, to keep us all from quitting or drinking ourselves to death – we rallied around him. Outside of a platoon of soldiers or a brigade of firefighters, I’m not sure there is anything quite like a kitchen, like our kitchen, a family at war with a world of stupidity, laziness, and crass, generic, mediocrity.

It was enough – for a moment or two – to make me believe in mankind again, and it was worth suffering a month of Tobin for that.

 

*Yeah, that’s the motherfucker’s real name.